By John H. Foote

Though the major American networks were offering quality programs in the late nineties and through the 2000’s, the best on TV was being seen on HBO and Showtime, (The West Wing the exception) the two major cable networks available to subscribers. Free from those pesky network censors, the programs on the cable stations could be R rated, contain harsh language, brutal, realistic violence, nudity and sexuality. Yet it was the realism audiences sought out.

Oz was perhaps the first great HBO series, a tough talking prison drama that would be a breeding ground for the many actors to be seen time and time again on HBO programming. In fact if you follow HBO television, you will find many of the same actors appearing on program after program, in major, supporting and cameo roles.

Oz was shocking in its portrayal of prison life, the frank homosexuality and prison rape seen on the show and the swift and shocking acts of violence. Equally exciting were the character arcs of the fascinating, sometimes downright evil men behind bars. J.K. Simmons would attract attention as Vern, the vicious neo-Nazi who routinely rapes men yet claims to despise homosexuals. Terry Kinney, a veteran character actor would make an impression as the good-hearted prison administrator who is experimenting with Emerald City, housing some of the most dangerous criminals, all thrown together into a melting pot. Critically acclaimed, though often called out for its violence, the show knocked down the door for cable programming, making clear to the networks and viewers, cable was indeed exciting. Oz was thrilling, combining great characters well-acted by the cast with strong narratives each and every week.

Yet it was child’s play compared to The Sopranos (****), which became one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved HBO programs in TV history. The story of a New Jersey mob family headed by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) the series ran for six seasons, ending with one of the most controversial conclusions in TV history. Beautifully written and directed, the series explored how the various mob families did business, intertwining the story with how they lived out their everyday lives in plain sight of the FBI, who they knew were often watching them. The characters became beloved to audiences, Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), wife to Tony, Christopher Moltisani (Michael Imperioli) rising young mobster and close to Tony, Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) Uncle to Tony and technically the boss, Paulie Gaultieri (Tony Sirico), the tough enforcer for the family who often annoys Tony with his constant babble, Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro), Tony’s explosive, often dangerous sister, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), advisor to Tony, and so many others who became a part of a rich pop culture as the popularity of the program grew.

The Sopranos was the first cable drama to cross over to earn Emmy nominations and win major awards, forever altering the landscape of modern television. As characters came in and out of the show, many key characters were killed off in shocking ways, until finally in that startling ending it appears Tony’s life finally, shockingly comes to an end as sudden blackness hits the screen. That said, if you had been listening to all the episodes leading to that final black out, the writers were telling you what was going to happen in subtle ways, telegraphing the death of the mafia chief right in front of his wife and children in a popular diner. Darkly magnificent. The program ran from 1997 through 2007 with often more than eighteen months between seasons, leaving viewers with six outstanding seasons and 86 superb episodes. It must be binged.

While audiences were clamoring for The Sopranos, HBO screened very quietly in the beginning Deadwood (****), a superbly crafted western series about life in the mining town not long after the massacre at Little Big Horn. Unlike any western we had ever seen before, on the big screen or small, Deadwood was a profane collection of good and evil men and women converging on a town in hopes of striking it rich in the gold rich Black Hills of the Dakotas.

Authentic in its portrayal of the Old West, with its muddy streets, brutal living conditions, dreadful treatment of women, superbly merging fact with fiction, Deadwood was a unique and altogether brilliant show. At the centre of the town, lording over as its master was the insidious, yet charismatic Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) owner of the Gem Saloon, famous for its whiskey and whores. Swearengen establishes very quickly he runs Deadwood with an iron fist and will kill without mercy anyone, and I mean anyone who stands in his way. McShane is stunning in the role, projecting a danger in every scene he is in, even those in which he is smiling. McShane gives a towering performance, so much of it in his eyes, where he can change from cheerful to deadly in a blink, with the raise of an eyebrow. Into the camp comes Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner Sol Starr (John Hawkes) who hope to open a hardware store, but very quickly Bullock runs afoul of Al, allowing his temper to flare. A former lawman with a penchant for getting involved where he sees injustice, Bullock is fearless, violent, but his ferocious temper often lands him in hot water. For the first few episodes of the series, Keith Carradine gave a superb performance as a world weary, tired to the bone Wild Bill Hickock, who seems to know there is a bullet in his midst with his name on it. We know he died in Deadwood, so the moment he appears on screen we realize we are watching his last days. With him is Jane Cannery (Robin Wiegert) a tough as nails Indian scout, who swears like a man and is just as lethal with a gun and bullwhip, later in life becoming known as Calamity Jane.

Over three seasons we watch the camp grow and many prosper. As Bullock becomes the Town Marshall bringing order to the chaos, often at a price. Try as we might, despite the obscene ruthlessness of Al, we cannot help but like the man, because he does not put on airs, what you see is what you get. Asked what he thought when he met Al, Bullock responds without hesitation, “you were a killer” and he is spot on. Brad Dourif is terrific as the hard-drinking town doctor who saw far too many young lads butchered in the Civil War and longs for peace, while Kim Dickens brings soul to her role as Joanie Stubbs, a whore trying to get out. Written with an almost Shakespearean language by David Milch, the series was a masterpiece, critically acclaimed and growing in popularity with each year, before it was tragically cancelled after three brilliant seasons. Fans of the show, myself included, howled in protest over the cancellation, demanding the show be brought back. Thirteen years later HBO made a film set exactly that time later picking up on the characters we so came to love. Though the film was very good, it lacked the sprawling narrative of the original series and left us longing for more. Possibly the finest TV series I have ever seen.

The first time I saw Six Feet Under was in its pilot form and I was shocked. I did not know what to think, but I knew this, I was tuning in for the next one. Created by Alan Ball who had just won an Academy Award for his screenplay to American Beauty (1999) the film dealt with family dysfunction yet in a very original manner. Here was a series set in the home of a family of Funeral Directors, The Fishers, who operate their business out of their massive home and have for many years. In the first episode the patriarch of the family, Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) is killed in a bus accident leaving the home to his two sons to operate. The youngest David (Michael C. Hall) works as a partner with his father and is a licensed Funeral Director, while Nate (Peter Krause) is a wanderer and ladies’ man who wanted nothing to do with the business. Yet suddenly they are thrown together and at the request of their mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy) reeling in grief and dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter, Clare (Lauren Ambrose). Together this cast made up one of the most exceptional ensembles in modern television history.

The family was surrounded with secondary characters who were equally dysfunctional and strange including Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), Nate’s girlfriend and later wife, a volatile, sexual being, her brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto) who is deeply in love with his sister, Joanna Cassidy as their wacky, wealthy mother, Freddy Rodriguez as Rico, the gifted embalmer for the business, James Cromwell as George, the man Ruth marries later in the show, a seemingly good man holding back a terrible secret, and an array of guest stars usually making up the mourners of the deceased.

Each program began with the strange death of a person, and they would be the funeral the Fishers were arranging. Later in the show, these deaths ended some shows, shocking the viewers in that death has no favourites. Major characters die, and the finale remains the single greatest I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing for a major television program. Clare leaves California, and as she drives through the desert, we see her future and the future of her family and how each of them including herself, will meet their end. It remains one of the most haunting conclusions to a TV show I have ever seen, I still think about it and hear that song, “Breathe” by Sia in my head. The series broke ground in its honest depiction of gay relationships, sexuality, insanity, intense dysfunction and of course in its honest portrayal of death and how it impacts those around the deceased. A stunning work of art on every level and among the greatest dramatic series ever producer for television.

While HBO was knocking it out of the park with television excellence, their main rival Showtime found a hit of its own in the excellent black comedy Dexter (****), which came on after HBO faded Six Feet Under into oblivion. Featuring Michael C. Hall again, the range and astounding depth of his talents became clear in this series. As the warm-hearted, decent young Funeral Director, David, he was sincere and the sort of man you would want as a friend, but as Dexter Morgan, he was chilling as a serial killer with a particular style.

Adopted by a cop when he was young, the officer realized what his son was (a psychopathic sociopath) and groomed him to do good with it. Knowing he could not help what he was, rather than taking innocent lives, which was the path young Dexter was on, they created a code, that only evil people could die, only the worst of humanity could end up on Dexter’s table to satisfy his need. Pedophiles, rapists, murderers, abusers of children and women, drug lords, only the worst were killed by Dexter. And get this. Dexter was a blood spatter specialist for the Miami Police Department, the perfect cover, hiding in plain sight. He had access to police records to know the pasts of who he was about to butcher, and his father had taught him never to leave a clue, always clean up the mess, before dumping the body parts in the ocean.

Needless to say Hall was extraordinary as Dexter, creating a monster who did his best to hide what he was by trying to be normal. We see how hard he works to fit in, to blend, and come to understand he is only truly himself when butchering another person. In supporting roles Jennifer Carpenter was terrific as his foul mouthed sister, Julie Benz was perfect as Rita, Dexter’s damaged, doomed girlfriend, Oz alumnae David Zayas was warm and wonderful as the detective Angel, Luna Lauren Velez was excellent as the woman who presides over the department, Maria, and each season presented us with a new monster for Dexter to hunt down. Among them were John Lithgow, brilliant, as Arthur Mitchell, Jimmy Smits, superb as Miguel Prado, Colin Hanks as the deeply troubled Travis, Julia Stiles as a former victim feeling bloodlust, Lumen, the chilling Jaime Murray as Lila, a girlfriend of Dexter’s who proves to be a dangerous pyromaniac, and in the final two seasons Yvonne  Strahovski as Hannah, a former killer who falls in love with Dexter. Often very funny, the series was as black a comedy as you can get though no one would ever call it a true comedy. This was horror, through and through. And brilliant.

And finally HBO gave us True Blood (***), was an almost exceptional horror series that ran for seven seasons, five of them very good, but the last two kind of imploded on themselves. It is a world where human beings must co-exist with vampires, and the creation of a drink called True Blood has helped to stop the killing of people. Of course, there are rogue vampires who still slaughter innocent men and women, but an uneasy alliance has come up. Sookie (Anna Paquin) lives in New Orleans and is possessed of gifts not even she understands. She hears voices, meaning she hears everything everyone near her is thinking which can be a nuisance. Sookie lives with her grandmother, but the older lady meets a terrible death early in the series, leaving the girl to be romanced by a local vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) who fought in the Civil War.

Again an incredible cast of characters populates True Blood, the best of them being Alexander Skarsgard as Eric, the dangerous local marshal of the vampire clan; Ryan Kwantan as Jason, Sookie’s dumb as a post but good looking brother; Deborah Ann Woll as Jessica, a baby vampire turned at seventeen, tied to Bill, and the single most beautiful vampire ever created; the superb Kristen Bauer Van Straten as Pam, Eric’s sarcastic and vicious minion; the late great Nelson Ellis as drug dealing gay cook Lafayette; and best and most terrifying of all Denis O’Hare as Russell Edgington a three thousand year old vampire who feeds on who he pleases. The performances were uniformly superb, the when the story started to include werewolves, and fairies, well safe to say things became downright silly. I watched right through to the bitter end, but the final two seasons were not near as good as the first group, which alternated between terrifying and deeply funny. Sex, blood, hot bodies and vampires? What more do you need?

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